Mexicans often feel that billionaire Carlos Slim owns everything in their country, from telephone and Internet companies to banks and chain stores, but his latest acquisitive foray is meeting resistance after touching a national passion: soccer.
Slim, who last week lost the world's richest man title to Bill Gates, recently bought part of two of Mexico's first division soccer teams, setting up another showdown with television giants Televisa and TV Azteca — major players in the soccer field that are in turn trying to push their way into Slim's telecommunications and Internet markets.
The owners of the 18 Mexican first division clubs are scheduled to meet Monday to decide whether one person or one company can own more than one first-division soccer team, and many see Slim as the target.
Each team has one vote in decisions by the Mexican Football Federation, so purchasing more teams would give Slim more power in the federation. Recently, there have been rumors in sporting circles and on social networks that Slim also plans to buy or acquire the broadcast rights for Chivas, one of Mexico's two most popular teams, along with Televisa's America. The billionaire's spokesmen have denied that.
"What is evident in their business decisions is that Televisa is interested in entering Slim's mobile and broadband fields and Slim is interested in entering the soccer field, which has been under the monopoly of the two television networks," said telecommunications analyst Gabriel Sosa Plata, referring to the fact that the networks long had exclusive broadcast rights to the games of all 18 teams.
Slim ventured into soccer in September, when he bought 30 percent of the shares in the Leon and Pachuca teams through his telecommunications company America Movil. In December, he bought all the shares of the second division team Estudiantes Tecos.
Following the acquisitions, team owners in February decided to discuss the issue of multi-ownership.
The decision raised some eyebrows since TV Azteca currently owns two teams, the Jaguares and Morelia, and Televisa once owned three first division teams, America, Necaxa and San Luis, without notable complaints within the federation about the issue of multi-team ownership. The world football authority, FIFA, however, has expressed concern about conflict of interest questions raised by the issue.
Pachuca's owner, Jesus Martinez, said he was shocked that the subject of multi-ownership has come up since Slim ventured into soccer.
"It's laughable because that (multi-ownership) has been going on for more than 25 years," Martinez said.
But Televisa currently owns just one team, America, and TV Azteca is reportedly thinking of selling the Jaguares to a business group that would relocate it from Chiapas state to Queretaro. A Jaguares' spokesman wouldn't comment on the report but if the purchase takes place, Slim would be the only businessman with multiple teams in the first division.
Neither Televisa, the world's largest producer of Spanish-language TV programs, nor TV Azteca immediately responded to interview requests by The Associated Press.
Decio de Maria, president of the Mexican Soccer League, said that if there is a vote against a single person or company owning several teams, Slim wouldn't be obligated to sell one of his teams but he would be prevented from buying more first division teams.
"In the next owners assembly, they will discuss whether there are differences between multi-ownership now and what has been happening in the past and if there are then we will take the necessary measures," said Slim's spokesman Arturo Elias Ayub.
So the upcoming vote on the subject seems geared to preventing Slim from buying more teams, not forcing him to shed one he already has.
Slim's foray into the world of soccer is also threatening the two TV networks in an area they hold dear: broadcast rights to games.
Slim's America Movil is a leading provider of cable and satellite television in Latin America but he has not been able to launch a network of his own in Mexico, something that could change after a recent approval of a reform that allows for more competition in the telecommunications sector.
Lacking his own station, after acquiring part of Leon, Slim began marketing the rights to broadcast its games, ending the duopoly held by Televisa and TV Azteca.
"Soccer is important for non-paid television because it is part of Mexico's most watched programming and for Televisa and TV Azteca it was an area they completely dominated," Sosa Plata said. "Slim's entry into soccer is reorganizing the field and giving a new perspective to a business that seemed stagnant."
The billionaire sold the broadcast rights for the Leon games to Telemundo in the United States, and the cable channel Fox Sports in Mexico and the rest of Latin America and to the website mediotiempo.com, which belongs to CNN/Expansion. The games are also sown on the Internet through UNO TV owned by Slim's business group.
Pachuca's broadcast rights belong to TV Azteca but that contract expires in December and Martinez has said he will negotiate with the highest bidder, which suggests that his partner Slim won't be excluded from the possibility of buying the rights.
Slim "is a very important partner in our group, he's helping soccer to grow, which is what really matters," Martinez said.
Slim is also moving into broadcasting sports outside Mexico.
In March, America Movil trumped its rivals by announcing it had acquired the broadcast rights across all media platforms for the upcoming Olympic Games in Sochi 2014 and Brazil 2016 for Latin America, except Brazil.